The 2018 MLB Draft is June 4-6, and we are getting very close to a fever pitch of excitement here at the site (note: does not have anything to do with noted baseball movie Fever Pitch, of which opinions are varied). While we will continue to profile potential draft choices with our conference preview series and mock draft recaps, we are also attempting to provide an overview of how we got to where we are. Last week we examined the positional depth in the system; this week we’ll be looking at the drafts from 2013- on to look back on the mistakes that were made (many!), value won (not a lot!), and how the current FO has been managing the draft assets it was handed, as well as the new direction forward.
2013 was Year Five of the Jack Z era in Seattle. In 2012, the Mariners used their two first picks on what would now become the two top catching prospects in the organization: Mike Zunino (drafted third overall in 2012) and Joe DeCarlo, drafted 64th overall as a third baseman, but who is a catcher now, and a pretty good one. They also took with their third pick a pitcher you might have heard of, by the name of Edwin Diaz. That’s a fairly impressive run of names, although I think it’s key to point out that none of those players had really taken a step forward before the new administration took over.
Finding homegrown impact on the big league club for the 2013 draft isn’t as easy, unless you track a series of transactions from deeper in the draft, although there is a good story in a fourteenth-round pick who has somehow has weathered every storm over his time in the organization like a particularly determined barnacle and now finds himself poised for a possible big-league callup this September.
The Mariners were not good in 2012, finishing 12 games under .500 and at the bottom of the AL West, but unfortunately weren’t as bad as 3/5ths of the AL Central (oh look at history repeating), plus a bunch of other teams, meaning they only had the twelfth overall pick in 2013. The 2013 draft was relatively thin and featured the Astros picking Mark Appel first overall, so like, yes, mistakes were made all around, and teams that did really well (the Cubs with Kris Bryant second overall, the Yankees with Aaron Judge at 32) are definitely the exception rather than the rule. DJ Peterson was supposed to be the surest bat in the class, and at 14 overall must have felt like a steal. Sadly, after posting big numbers in the lower minors, DJ seemed to run into a wall around the Double-A level. The Mariners wound up DFAing him last year, losing him on waivers—as you do, when you DFA a former first-rounder—and now he’s toiling in relative obscurity in the Reds’ Triple-A system. Of all the stories of failed development in the minors under the Zduriencik regime, and they are legion, the worst is...uhhh well probably not DJ, but it’s gotta be up there.
As thin as the 2013 draft was, and as much as hindsight is 20/20, taking Stanford outfielder Austin Wilson in the second round is one that particularly rankles. Wilson is the prototypical example of drafting a player on physicality alone—something that worked out for the Yankees when picking Judge, but not for the development-poor Mariners. Austin Wilson was a 6’4” Stanford prospect who looks like the Greek god of baseball, all chiseled features and barrel chest and winsome smile, who absolutely could not hit a lick in pro ball. Perhaps a different front office taps into Wilson’s raw athleticism or at least figures out how to market his movie star good looks, but whoever that might be, he hasn’t met them yet. Wilson was released by the Cardinals after being selected by them in the 2016 minor league phase of the Rule 5 draft, and is currently not in affiliated baseball.
In 2013, the Cardinals’ first-round pick—19th overall—was a left-handed pitcher out of tiny Gonzaga University in Washington State, not traditionally regarded as a powerhouse of college baseball talent. Marco Gonzales had blasted through school records, however, and showed an ability with the bat, as well. Four years later, Gonzales would find himself traded for the man selected almost seventy picks behind him, Tyler O’Neill, whom the Mariners took in the third round that year. While O’Neill posted strong numbers over his first few years in the system, it wasn’t until Dipoto took over that O’Neill’s numbers shot up, thanks mostly to the new FO’s mantra of “C the Z” that saw O’Neill’s walk rate shoot up while his strikeouts plunged. After a scorching appearance in the Arizona Fall League, O’Neill became one of baseball’s top prospects, and continued his power-hitting ways after being traded to the Cardinals, helping to lead his new Memphis club to a Triple-A championship.
Few moves of Dipoto’s have been as criticized and scrutinized as the O’Neill/Gonzales trade, especially last year, as O’Neill tore up the PCL and Gonzales struggled at the major league level. However, Dipoto said on the Wheelhouse podcast this off-season that he thought people might feel differently about the trade after 150 innings of Marco Gonzales, and so far that prediction has borne out, as Gonzales has been worth almost one win already in the young season. While it would certainly be nice to have Tyler bopping homers (he already has two, in back-to-back games, after being recalled recently), the Mariners are thin on starting pitching, as the Cardinals are on position players, so this might be the best example of a trade that benefits both sides.
After the third round, you have to go all the way to the 9th round to find a prospect who’s still in the Mariners system, although there are several still in baseball, most notably LHP Tyler Olson, currently with Cleveland. Jake Zokan, the Mariners’ 9th-round pick, is still with the organization, but has battled a multitude of injuries. He’s currently assigned within the organization and will hopefully be back soon.
In the 10th and 11th rounds, the Mariners got two prospects who have since been flipped for major-league assets. RHP Zack Littell was sent to NYY for James Pazos, and as good as Littell (who has since been sent to the Twins) looks, Pazos’s emergence as a dominant bullpen arm who also happens to be left-handed softens the blow here significantly. When you talk about trading away potential future assets for ones that can help the team out in the here and now, this is probably one of the strongest examples. Likewise, RHP Emilio Pagan, selected in the 10th round, really came into his own over the 2017 off-season pitching for team Puerto Rico in the WBC. It was hard to lose Pagán, an organizational favorite both for his talent and his personality, but the return was an everyday player in Ryon Healy, who projects to be one of the Mariners’ better first-base options in years, and is similarly young and controllable, in addition to having a stellar personality in his own right.
Things go quiet again until the fourteenth round, where the Mariners grabbed OF Ian Miller as a toolsy upside play. Miller has hung on in the organization while others have fallen away thanks to his elite speed, but over the past couple of years has augmented that speed with a swing change that’s helped him start to light up the stat sheet. He’s currently 20th in the PCL in hitting behind names like Austin Slater, Tony Kemp, Franmil Reyes, Jabari Blash, and former teammate Tyler O’Neill, all of whom have seen time in the majors this year, while continuing to be a threat on the bases and providing solid defense in center field.
After that, it’s a looooooooooong way out to the 37th round, where the Mariners took local kid Jordan Cowan out of Kentlake HS. If Miller still hanging on in the org. after being drafted in the 14th round is impressive, Cowan’s tenacity is “struck by lightning while holding a winning lottery ticket” odds. After grinding through the lower levels of the organization and playing off-season ball in Australia, where he’s a fan favorite, Cowan put together a strong 2016 that led into a 2017 where he was a key cog in the championship Modesto Nuts team. Cowan was also honored at Safeco last season for winning the organization’s Team Productive Plate Appearance Award (or what I call the C the Z award because it’s easier and we all know that can we just go back to calling it the C the Z award), meaning he posted the most productive at-bats—whether that be getting a hit, walking, sacrificing, or seeing a high number of pitches—in the organization. That award earned him an invite to big-league camp, where unfortunately a shoulder injury derailed the start of his season. Cowan is currently rehabbing and has recently started throwing again, and should be back with an affiliate soon.
First time throwing a ball in 5 months! Still got a lot of work to do on throwing Mechanics but a great starting point! Excited to continue strengthening the shoulder and to be back on the field soon enough! #teamrehab⚾️ pic.twitter.com/s2VHZFc6TL— Jordan Cowan (@Jcow4show) April 14, 2018
Hero of the draft:
I’d go with Miller or Cowan here, but in the 12th round this year the Mariners took the other Seager brother, Justin. Justin has since retired from baseball, prompting this moving piece from Bobby DeMuro, but what’s important is that you know Justin might be the most handsome of the Seager brothers who is also living his best life. Two-a-days and media scrutiny? How about whiskey and steak instead.
I also want to take a second here and honor 28th round selection Zach Shank, who just recently retired from baseball after battling health issues over the last couple years. According to Brett Gleason, PR person from Tacoma, Shank is the model ballplayer, someone who shows up early, works late, does everything he’s asked to do with a smile, and overall treats baseball as a job he’s very lucky to have. I’m hoping Shank hangs on with the Mariners and moves into a coaching role, specifically maybe assigned to Arizona to serve as a good role model for the youngest players in the org, who might not always understand what a gift they’ve been given to be blessed with both athletic talent and good health.
2013 was a bad draft, not just for the Mariners but in baseball, in general. It happens! Sometimes the talent pool is just not as deep, although as younger players are exposed to more high-level concepts of training and recovery and nutrition than ever before, it seems like the pool might be getting wider, if not always deeper. What most stands out to me about this draft is how despite early missteps, the current FO has managed to trade later-round draftees like O’Neill, Littell, and Pagán for assets that are helping out the major league club right now. For as much as the Mariners have a reputation as having drafted and developed poorly under Jack Z, O’Neill, Littell, and Pagán are currently Marco Gonzales, James Pazos, and Ryon Healy. That’s a pretty impressive sleight of hand, if you ask me.